First introduced onscreen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther character blew up in popularity with the release of his self-titled solo film in 2018. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed) and played to perfection by Chadwick Boseman (Black Bottom, Draft Day), the film was a smash hit, drawing critical and audience acclaim for its themes of family ties and cultural identity.
Subsequent Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) primed audiences for a dedicated sequel, but when Boseman succumbed to a hitherto unknown bout with cancer in 2020, questions arose on whether a follow-up would even be possible in his absence.
Wakanda Forever begins with Wakanda’s Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) throwing all of her scientific might into a desperate battle for T’Challa’s (Boseman) life. It is a battle that she ultimately loses, leaving Shuri, Queen Ramonda (Angela Basset, Waiting to Exhale, TV’s 9-1-1), and the rest of Wakanda to mourn the loss of their king. But the grieving will have to wait, as they are forced to contend with invasions, not only from those who would be their allies but a race of undersea dwellers led by the mysterious Namor.
With Namor demanding that Wakanda join his fight against the world’s surface-dwelling nations, and the CIA actively seeking alternative sources of vibranium, it will fall to Shuri to defend her nation and honor her brother’s memory.
The death of the king
When it was announced that Wakanda Forever would be pushing through without Chadwick Boseman and that he would not be recast or brought back through CGI or any other means, speculation ran rampant on just what kind of film would greet moviegoers on opening day. While the concern was certainly warranted, returning writer-director Ryan Coogler proves it to have been almost entirely unnecessary, delivering what is perhaps the single most emotionally resonant entry in the MCU’s 14-year history.
While Wakanda Forever’s Phase 4 predecessors Black Widow, No Way Home, Shang-Chi, and Multiverse of Madness (the less said about The Eternals, the better) were enjoyable in and of themselves, those films were — for the most part — more concerned with delivering blockbuster experiences than dwelling on anything as morbidly relatable as a death in the family.
Coogler makes no such concession – everything here happens as a direct consequence of T’Challa’s (and Boseman’s) passing, and the film is immeasurably richer for it. By opening the film with his star’s off-screen passing, Coogler boldly addresses the question on everyone’s mind while instilling the resultant narrative with an emotional grounding sorely missing from the bulk of post-Endgame releases.
It brings the MCU back down to earth
Given the cartoon antics of Thor: Love and Thunder, this was a wise choice. Just as Casino Royale (2006) returned the James Bond franchise to reality after the CGI excesses of Die Another Day (2002), Wakanda Forever does an exemplary job of reminding us why we fell in love with these characters in the first place: for all their powers and tech, the Avengers and those around them are — first and foremost — people. As opposed to the new gods their DC counterparts were (often) presented as, Marvel’s comic book characters were conceived as imperfect, beset with the same hopes, emotions, and problems as the ones reading them.
The warriors of Wakanda
It goes without saying that the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting falls on Wright’s young shoulders; with Shuri’s perceived failure weighing on her every decision, she finds herself questioning everything she once believed about the science and traditions that have shaped her life. Whatever preconceptions one may have of the performer, her dedication to the character (and what Boseman brought to the table) form a tangible part of every scene she features in.
As Shuri and T’Challa’s mother, Basset delivers an iconic performance, effortlessly personifying the queen’s strength and regality – whether she’s facing down an undersea superhuman or the UN General Assembly, her authority (and ability to back it up) is never in question. And in the rare moments when she lets her exterior defenses down, we see the world-weary matriarch who would sacrifice anything for her offspring. Her grief is ours, and while we’re aware that the MCU is down a hero, we’re never allowed to forget that he was also a brother and a son.
The supporting cast
Returning as General Okoye and covert operative Nakia, respectively, Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) and Lupita Nyong’o (Us, 12 Years a Slave) expand upon what could have been thankless side roles, imbuing their characters with pathos and, of course, fantastic outfits.
Of the two, Gurira’s fan-favorite Okoye is given more to do, and while her no-nonsense character is laden with a tad too many of the typical Marvel one-liners here, her eventual narrative arc manages to be surprisingly multi-faceted.
The film also features Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ shady intelligence boss (last seen in the Falcon and the Winter Soldier TV series) and Martin Freeman’s (The Hobbit, TV’s Sherlock) exasperated CIA agent Everett Ross, who are meant to represent Wakanda’s ties to the larger MCU but end up being more than a bit superfluous. As with her previous appearances, Louis-Dreyfus’ well-honed sitcom zaniness remains at odds with a character once known as “Madame Hydra” in the comics, while Freeman’s Ross has lost whatever charm he had previously, coming across as little more than bland with a passable American accent.
The new breed
Marvel Comics mainstay Namor makes his much-anticipated live-action debut here, divested of his Atlantis-based origins and reimagined as an Aztec-inspired warrior with a grudge against humankind. As played by Tenoch Huerta (The Forever Purge, Narcos: Mexico) this is an altogether more level-headed (yet no less conceited) version of the character, with what he lacks in muscle definition made up for by the self-assured charisma the actor brings to the role.
Also appearing for the first time is de facto Iron Man successor Riri “Ironheart” Williams (Dominique Thorne, If Beale Street Could Talk), an MIT student with an aptitude for tech that impresses even Shuri. However established Riri may be in the comics, one wouldn’t know it from this film – her participation is barely less arbitrary than Spider-Man’s was in Civil War, but whereas Spidey had 60 years of fan love backing him, Ironheart doesn’t have anywhere near as much cred.
While she is scheduled to star in her own Disney+ series, it is endlessly frustrating that the groundwork that should have been laid here is relegated to streaming (ala Penguin’s role in The Batman).
Building the next saga
Following Endgame, it was unclear which direction the MCU would go, moving forward. Sure, Spider-Man: Far From Home served as an extended epilogue, and Black Widow delivered a long-overdue solo adventure for Scarlett Johansson’s beloved superspy, but it remains entirely unclear (as of writing) what they are meant to be setting up. No Way Home and Shang-Chi all established their own (seemingly-unrelated) reality-breaking scenarios, as did the Loki, Wandavision, and What If TV series.
Unfortunately, the one film that actually had Multiverse in its title did little to tie things together, revealing itself to be a stealth sequel to the Wandavision TV series in the first fifteen minutes. The less said about Love and Thunder (enjoyable nonsense) and The Eternals’ (boring nonsense) non-contributions to the lore, the better.
Recently, it’s been implied that 2023’s Ant-Man: Quantumania will serve as the glue that ties it all together, but one really shouldn’t need a comic con panel to explain how movies are supposed to relate to each other.
The bottom line
Extraneous characters and slight pacing issues aside, Wakanda Forever is a stirring, thrilling MCU entry that succeeds in its main goal of paying tribute to the original Black Panther and its star while driving the franchise definitively forward. In a universe rife with intergalactic supervillains and extradimensional threats, the decision to anchor the film around something so inherently human as the passing of a loved one doesn’t just give the characters a chance to confront their grief, it allows us, the viewers, a chance to witness something altogether more significant: the restoration of the MCU’s soul.
Somewhere, Chadwick Boseman is smiling.
Catch Black Panther: Wakanda Forever showing in cinemas nationwide now.